Roger Adamson is Co-Founder and CEO of Futurenautics. Futurenautics is a market research, consultancy and information platform which exists to identify and contextualise how the technology-enabled future will impact the lives and expectations of human beings whilst equipping them with the information, insight and appetite to fully participate in its creation.
“Dominated by small enterprises and owner operators, heavily regulated, playing a critical role in the movement of goods and facing the uncertainty of a future where automation and unmanned operation will fundamentally change the nature of the industry.”
That’s a description warning those in the United States’ trucking industry of change, but it could equally apply to the small and specialist vessel market. The parallels continue when one considers that technology companies are investing heavily in autonomous trucks in the same way that they’re pursuing the goal of autonomous ships, foreseeing significant opportunity to disrupt an industry that moves 70 per cent of domestic freight and has revenues approaching three quarters of a trillion dollars.
The opportunity in financial terms within the small vessel sector might be considered as smaller, but that’s offset by the scope for improvements in safety, efficiency and in reduced build and operating costs.
For both shipping and trucking the benefits really stack up on the long-haul and deep-sea journeys but that’s where the similarities end. Ironically, thanks to the regulatory situation in shipping, despite the move to autonomy offering the greatest gains for traditional freight sectors like container and bulk, the likelihood is that remote and autonomous operations will appear in the small vessel sector first.
That means that unlike trucking, which can start on the long open highways, the open highways of the oceans aren’t in play yet. By contrast, shipping has to start making autonomy work in the most congested waters with a complex range of stakeholders and issues. As a consequence, if small vessels in territorial waters can demonstrate effective deployment of remote and autonomous technologies then regulatory change and widespread adoption is likely to follow fairly quickly.
If that strikes you as a little far-fetched it’s worth just pausing for a moment to reflect on how far and how fast we’re making the journey to unmanned operations. When we wrote the first issue of Futurenautics magazine almost four years ago, there wasn’t even talk of moving to unmanned vessels. Today we are likely to be only two years away from seeing the first fully autonomous, unmanned short sea vessel in operation – and it will probably be at sea operating autonomously for some time before it becomes unmanned.
The driving forces behind the move towards unmanned vessels
When you analyse the driving forces behind the move to an unmanned operation it’s clear that the impetus is not coming from within the industry. Ask most ship operators if they would trust an autonomous ship and I suspect you can guess the answer. The momentum is building because of the wider trend of autonomous, intelligent and unmanned transport that is developing as part of new Industry 4.0 supply chains and personal mobility driven by cargo owners, manufacturers and consumers the world over. Transparency, flexibility, reliability and environmentally acceptable operations are the real drivers as vertical industries merge into intelligent transport systems. Automation means that eventually every single vehicle will likely be autonomous and we won’t be talking about ‘trucks’ and ‘ships’.
This provides a huge first-mover opportunity for the small vessel sector where investment and acquisition of competencies and expertise in this area could futureproof businesses whilst the rest of the market grapples with overcapacity and slow economic growth. Small vessels are going to be the pioneers in this sea-change and we’ve already seen Svitzer demonstrate the first remotely operated tug in Copenhagen harbour, Wartsila take control of a PSV off the coast of Scotland, from a control centre in San Diego, and the tank testing of the Yara Birkeland due to enter service in 2019. The latter is an electric, self-docking, self-unloading, autonomous unmanned container ship. Perhaps of most significance in this ground-breaking project is that it’s being conceived and delivered not by a ship operator but a fertiliser company.
This speaks to a wider trend, that automation on this scale will reduce the specialist knowledge required to operate ships in future and open up the industry to others who may be less respectful of its traditions. The opportunity for incumbent operators though is twofold. Firstly, to specialise in the management and operation of autonomous small commercial vessels – perhaps though providing an operating platform for such vessels to others. Secondly, as the regulatory environment changes for the larger sectors, to provide expertise and operating platforms for these operators too.
Effects on crew
Automation in maritime, as with trucking, will also bring less favourable effects. Most notable of these will be the reduction in the number of people we need. For shipping that’s likely to be a 70% reduction in the number of deck officers and ratings required. There will be a transitional period where autonomous ships will remain manned, but beyond that there will also be a requirement for operation centres that can intervene when the technology encounters a problem – and these centres will require competent trained staff with seafaring experience. How many we will need remains to be seen but it’s unlikely that, when the transitional phase is over, we will still have remotely controlled ships that will be piloted from shore – even in highly congested waters.
The technology needed to operate vessels autonomously is already available but the vessels themselves will need to be standardised in order that they can operate for significant periods without maintenance. If this can be achieved, we will likely move to an aero based model where vessels will be routinely taken out of service for maintenance work – replacing sea-going staff with shore based maintenance teams which could deliver largely secure jobs and future requirements for engineering staff.